Sunday, December 11, 2016

Nocturnal Animals

3.5/4

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney

Rated R for Violence, Menace, Graphic Nudity and Language

It isn't until the final frame of "Nocturnal Animals" that everything becomes clear.  The film tells three stories simultaneously, but what they are building to doesn't become clear until the last shot.  It's a close up that tells all.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is an art gallery owner living in an unnamed big city.  Although extraordinarily wealthy with a stunner of a husband (Hammer), she is far from happy.  One day she gets a manuscript in the mail.  Her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), has gotten it published and has offered her the first peek.

The novel, titled "Nocturnal Animals," is about a man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal), who is on a road trip with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber).  On a dark stretch of road with no phone signal, the trio gets stuck behind two cars who are blocking them from passing.  Tony honks the horn to let them know he wants to pass, but that starts a game of chicken that ends up with them being forced off the road.  The leader of the group of rednecks, a nasty piece of work named Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson), switches from being nice to hostile and back again.  He savors their fear and confusion.  Eventually, Laura and India are kidnapped and later found raped and murdered.  Tony's only hope for justice is a lawman with a secret named Bobby Andes (Shannon).

Although the novel's plotline is compelling and plenty of time is spent with it, the film's real focus is Susan.  Through her, we learn what the novel really means, and the focus of the film: the choices we make have a price.

I have nothing but good things to say about the performances of Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal.  Both are excellent thespians, and give strong performances.  Oscar nominations are deserved, but my guess is that the movie is a little too abstract for the Academy to take strong notice of.  They deserve them.  My only complaint is their age.  They are simply too young for their roles.  42-year-old Amy Adams as a woman on her second marriage from a man who she married nineteen years ago after grad school?  Or what about 35-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal as a man with a full-grown daughter?  It's a small, but consistently nagging, problem.  That said, the strength of their work is more than enough to overcome the hurdle.

They are surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, with known actors like Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone and Laura Linney (in a strong one scene appearance as Susan's mother, a Southern belle who isn't as superficial as she seems) taking small and insignificant parts.  The most colorful characters are portrayed by Michael Shannon as a tough and loyal cop and especially Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a killer with no conscience.  They're excellent.

The film was adapted from the novel by Austin Wright and directed by fashion designer Tom Ford.  That doesn't surprise me.  This is a visually inventive and thrilling film.  The film's look, which is at times ostentatious and gritty, is used well.  Like the best filmmakers, Ford uses visuals and sound (the score by Abel Korzeniowski is wonderful) for a purpose: it helps anchor the character's emotions and ground the story.  They make a point.

The film's ending is, by design, open to interpretation.  I imagine people will want to talk about it over a cup of coffee.  It's a little too artsy for true mainstream consumption and to be a heavy hitter at Oscar time (then again, "Birdman" won Best Picture two years ago), but those who see it will not forget it.

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